Wizards riding dominant defense to turnaround

Wizards riding dominant defense to turnaround originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

All season long, at least some of the pieces have been there for the Wizards to have a good defense. The individual metrics for guys like Kristaps Porzingis, Daniel Gafford, Kyle Kuzma and Deni Avdija have been solid. As a team, they have ranked favorably in numerous key indicators across the board.

Yet, for the most part, their defense has been an overall weakness. That is until recently, as while they have won their last five games, the Wizards’ defense has suddenly clicked.

Before this five-game winning streak, the Wizards were 22nd in the NBA in defensive rating (113.8), but after those five wins they rank 12th (112.4). That seems to be a sign of significant improvement in a short period of time and also a reminder that it’s still early enough in the season for those types of numbers to fluctuate dramatically.

As for why the rapid improvement, there could be a few factors. For one, the Wizards have played against teams missing elite scorers. The Sixers were without Tyrese Maxey (22.0 ppg), the Suns were missing Devin Booker (27.1 ppg) and the Bucks didn’t have Giannis Antetokounmpo (32.1 ppg). The Wizards have taken advantage, surrendering a league-low 103.8 points per game over their last five.

But there are also reasons to believe the Wizards’ recent defensive uptick is not entirely a fluke. For instance, it coincides with the return of Delon Wright, who is arguably their best perimeter defender. He is No. 1 in the NBA in deflections per-36 minutes among players who have logged at least 100 minutes played.

With Wright in the backcourt and Porzingis in the paint, the Wizards have two major difference-makers on the front and backend of their defense. Those two have played 64 minutes together this season, boasting the fourth-best defensive rating (88.4) in the NBA among all two-man combos with at least 50 minutes played.

These last five games have also featured a new look in the Wizards’ starting lineup with Porzingis alongside Gafford in what is essentially a two-center combination. They have a +29.5 net rating through 115 minutes across 11 games.

Porzingis is third in the NBA this season in total contested shots (402), while Gafford is 10th in contested shots per-36 minutes (15.3). Over the last five games, both rank top-seven in the NBA in total contested shots.

The Wizards’ starting lineup with Porzingis and Gafford has held a 96.8 defensive rating over the last five games with a +22.9 net rating through 58 minutes. They are dominating on both ends of the floor and getting a significant lift from the bench coming in behind them.

Whether the Wizards’ recent defensive surge is sustainable could be proven very soon, as Antetokounmpo may play on Tuesday in the rematch in Milwaukee. There may be no greater test to a team’s frontcourt defense than him, a two-time MVP whose length, speed and power make him basically unguardable at times.

But the Wizards’ recent trajectory on defense makes some of their other stats for the season overall seem more legitimate. They rank top-10 in isolation defense (0.87 PPP), defensive field goal percentage (46.0), fastbreak points allowed (12.8/g), opponent points off turnovers (15.8/g) and defensive rebound percentage (72.9). They give up the fourth-fewest wide-open shot attempts overall (17.3/g) and from three (14.8/g), per Second Spectrum.

All of those things suggest the Wizards should have a fairly decent defense, yet up until recently that wasn’t the case. Maybe they have experienced a breakthrough with Wright’s return and the Porzingis-Gafford lineup as catalysts.

Maybe. Or, maybe Antetokounmpo will remind them they still have work to do.

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